Uruguay celebrates its "bicentenario": 200 years ago, around 100 men in battle fatigues gathered at the Asencio River and swore freedom from the colonial power Spain. Even though years passed before the small country on the Rio de la Plata was declared the Republic of Uruguay, the "Cry of Independence of Asencio" is considered the beginning of the State of Uruguay.
With a ceremony on Sunday (27.02.2011) commemorates this oath of freedom; at the same time, a series of festivities begins that will continue until October.
If you stroll through Montevideo’s old town, past bookstores, cafes or small street markets, you’ll see the same picture on almost every corner: public banks, private money houses and exchange offices. Perhaps this is why Uruguay is called the "Switzerland of South America", partly because of its banking secrecy. And perhaps it also has to do with the landscape: Beyond the metropolises, there are dense forests, lush meadows and grazing cows.
Switzerland and Uruguay are also similar in size. Both are small states – squeezed between the big ones. Uruguay, formerly an official buffer state, appears tiny between Latin America’s two largest countries, Brazil and Argentina. In a similar setting, Switzerland is surrounded by five countries, including France and Germany. In the political context, Uruguay is just as neutral as its European counterpart, and stays out of international conflicts as much as possible.
First democratic state on the continent
However, Uruguay has been called the "Switzerland of South America" only since the beginning of the 20. The first democratic state on the continent. At that time, the small state was currently developing into the first democratic and secular state on the continent. The economic boom was accompanied by numerous rights for the population, such as the eight-hour day, unemployment insurance, paid vacation and old-age pensions. The government banned child labor, allowed divorces, nationalized companies and expanded the education system. In exemplary Uruguay, a broad middle class grew up, the mortality rate fell, and the standard of living rose steadily.
Uruguayans have always been impressed by the Helvetic model on the other side of the Atlantic. The collegial council of the Swiss executive, which then as now consisted of seven federal councillors, inspired Uruguay’s politicians. After a referendum in 1919, for example, the country was ruled by nine executive members at once. The president of this "National Council of Government" took care of international affairs according to the Swiss model. After some golden years, however, Uruguay’s economy also went downhill.
Proud of what has been achieved
Today the country is a presidential republic. And even if many Uruguayans believe they no longer deserve to be called the "Switzerland of South America" – they do it anyway. Uruguay is still the most democratic state on the continent. Citizens can rely on a functioning rule of law, and the country has the best corruption ranking compared to other countries on the continent. Since 2003, the economy has been growing steadily; unemployment and poverty are falling. Not long ago, banking secrecy was another commonality. Uruguay, however, was bothered by being on the list of "tax havens" in 2009. So at the end of 2010, parliament voted to modify banking secrecy, which has been in place since 1982.
The otherwise discreet and modest Uruguayans are proud of their democratic welfare state. On a continent "full of injustices, we have created the most just country," President Jose Mujica said euphorically two weeks ago: here, "no one is more than the other". That might end up being a little too euphoric after all.